Plastic Plague

Versions of this article appeared in:

  • Orange Coast Voice, December 2006, page 9.
  • San Mateo County Renews, Spring 2006.
  • Southern Sierran, August 2005.
  • Sierra Club – San Fernando Valley chapter newsletter, May 2005.

The Plastic Plague: From a “fix it” to a “throw away” society
(#1 of the Plastic Plague series)
by Sarah S. Mosko Ph.D.

It’s getting harder and harder to find things that aren’t made of plastic. You can even get potato chips now in a plastic bottle to go with that plastic bottle of water. We have been made to think that plastics are indispensable, even good for us. Since WWII we have made a complete about-face from a “fix it and make it do” to a “use it once and toss it” society, with plastics playing a starring role.

The percentage of plastic that is recycled is low compared to the amount that is generated.

The percentage of plastic that is recycled is low compared to the amount that is generated.

Plastics Non-Biodegradable
Here are a few facts that might make that plastic grocery bag look a lot less innocent. Plastics come from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and theynever biodegrade. Plastics only breakdown into smaller bits of plastic, so all the plastic we have ever produced is still with us today.

This becomes a problem especially in the ocean. Many sea creatures, like turtles and ocean birds, mistake plastic particles for food. Plastics are burdening our landfills as well, since the quantity land-filled yearly has grown steadily since the plastics explosion of the 1980’s. Also, scientists are growing concerned about possible effects of plastics on human reproductive health.  Below is a graph showing the widening gap between the amount of plastics produced each year and the small fraction that gets recycled.

That is a paltry 5.5%. This accelerating accumulation of plastics represents a frightening challenge to an earth that is finite. Recycling has proven a poor solution because there are so many different types of plastics and chemical additives mixed in. Plus, health laws prevent using recycled plastics in contact with foods. Contrary to what most of us have been led to believe, that numbered chasing arrows symbol says nothing about whether a plastic item is recyclable; it just specifies the type of plastic polymer that was used (e.g. #6 denotes polystyrene, #3 is polyvinyl chloride). Most plastics in fact cannot be recycled.

Information about recyclable plastic
Curbside recycling programs generally accept only #1 and #2 plastics with a “neck” shape (e.g. no margarine tubs or yogurt cups), but it varies from community to community. Contact your waste management company to find out exactly what is accepted. As for plastic bags, almost no curbside recycling is available, but some supermarkets offer bins for recycling them. Still, don’t be lulled into thinking that a recycled grocery bag ends up again as another bag – almost all grocery bags are virgin plastic. If recycled, grocery bags are typically made into an “end” product, like plastic lumber, something that can never be recycled. The take home message here is that plastics recycling is not a closed loop, as the chasing arrows symbol would have you believe.

What you should do about using plastics
No one expects you to completely eliminate plastics from your life, but you certainly can avoid consumption of single-use throw-away plastics, like that drink or chips bottled in plastic. And the next time the grocery clerk asks you “paper or plastics,” choose paper, a renewable resource. Or better yet, bring your own cloth bag!

To participate in a California-based statewide plastics reduction campaign, contact Earth Resource Foundation or call (949) 645-5163.

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